Addressing Climate Challenges Through Youth Employment in Agri-Food Systems

September 29, 2021


growing tomatoes

This post is part of Marketlinks' and Agrilinks' joint Youth Employment Month and is authored by Keida Gaba. It originally appeared on Agrilinks.

The Sixth Assessment Report recently released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a stark reminder of the challenge presented by the climate crisis. The report finds that unless immediate, rapid, and large-scale reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are taken, “limiting warming close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.” Optimistically, it also finds that in the best case scenario (i.e., the very low GHG emissions scenario), global surface temperatures would “decline back to below 1.5°C toward the end of the 21st century.” Meeting these goals requires rapid climate adaptation and mitigation measures from all countries.

The IPCC report affirms that the expansion and intensification of global agriculture (and the broader food system) has increased emissions and contributed to global warming. Countries with the largest GHG emissions from agriculture are China, India, Brazil, and the United States. (The highest emitting countries overall are China, the United States, the European Union, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan.) Although high-income countries lead in GHG emissions from agriculture, lower-income countries face key challenges and opportunities in addressing the threats and impacts of climate change to agricultural development, food security, and poverty reduction. Investing in green agricultural practices that minimize greenhouse gas intensity (i.e., the amount of GHG emissions per area of land) and/or make agriculture more adaptive to climate shocks is critical to allow for economic transformation while avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. (See the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, Green Jobs for a Revitalized Food and Agriculture Sector, for more information.)

Youth Climate Leadership

Given that agriculture is the largest employer globally with over a billion workers, green jobs, or “decent jobs that contribute to preserving or restoring the environment'' (including through reducing GHG emissions), provide an avenue for employment in agri-food systems that helps address both food security and climate change. Green jobs uniquely offer a holistic approach that emphasizes adequate wages, safe working conditions, job security, reasonable career prospects, and worker rights. 

Youth are increasingly aware of the challenges presented by the climate crisis and a range of social and economic disparities they experience and witness. Their awareness fuels their concerns about justice and equity, including about their prospects for decent, sustainable employment amid the climate crisis. The current youth population is the largest generation of new workforce entrants globally in history, who must live with the impacts of climate change across the course of their entire lives. Engaging young people in agriculture-focused climate action presents both a challenge and an opportunity to achieve sustainable development brought by youth-led solutions to climate change in the agriculture sector. Addressing the climate crisis, in partnership with youth, with the greening and expansion of decent jobs in agri-food systems will shape the future of food security and the planet. 

Potential Positive Net Growth in a Greening Agriculture Sector

Studies show a shift to more environmentally sustainable activities results in a positive net national economic benefit “due to the longer and more diversified supply chains and higher labor intensity of the alternative technologies involved.” The findings apply to developing countries as net gains in employment are likely to be highest in emerging economies; they have the opportunity to leapfrog in a number of areas, notably technology, ultimately avoiding the costs associated with replacing obsolete infrastructure and related employment substitution.

Evidence further suggests that the greening of the agriculture sector is providing new employment opportunities for youth and others. For example, many low-impact and organic farming practices tend to have higher labor requirements for manual field labor, creating more direct jobs than traditional agriculture. These jobs help mitigate climate change effects, enable ecosystems to recover from over-use, reduce agricultural GHG emissions, and reduce desertification. Food produced organically also omits synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers in the production process that can negatively impact the health of those who apply them. Organic agriculture emphasizes the use of renewable resources and water and soil conservation to enhance environmental quality for future generations. 

While youth may avoid careers in agriculture due to the sector’s high labor demands, they also care deeply about mitigating the effects of climate change. More work is needed to identify which green jobs are most attractive to youth and if or how “green” a job is impacts their decision criteria. Nevertheless, these potential and direct benefits on human and environmental health and the direct net positive employment effects highlight the need to incorporate direct policy interventions and other measures for the greening of jobs in agriculture for and with youth.

Gaps and Barriers to Overcome

Green job participation often has numerous barriers, especially for young people, that must be overcome to deliver on economic, social, and environmental goals. These barriers include supply-side gaps, for example, where skills development opportunities often do not meet the needs within agri-food systems. They also include demand-side gaps that are not particular to green jobs alone, and often involve factors beyond workers’ control. Most importantly, these include the limited availability of good job opportunities, including wage-based employment, the creation of which is dependent on the actions of governments and companies. 

Recent surveys show rural youth are becoming more concerned about the environment and are discouraged by the current unstable labor market, ultimately viewing agriculture as a continuously less viable option for secure employment. Rural youth are discouraged by high set-up costs and the prospects of long-term profitability and sustainability of agricultural businesses. These youth face other barriers to building their businesses, as well, including lack of management skills and lack of access to affordable finance, land, markets, and information. These barriers can be further heightened by other intersecting identities, such as their gender. 

Although smallholder farmers produce a significant share of the food supply in many developing countries, making farming a crucial factor in both poverty alleviation and food security, given the various constraints, young small-scale producers are at a disadvantage. Many young people looking to work in organic food markets, for example, cannot easily undertake required agricultural practices and meet standards for certified organic labeling to serve international markets with a steady supply of produce. Limited access to finance for youth can make it harder for them to cover costs of organic certification, technology, and other required resources.  

Such constraints are particularly binding for young women seeking to fully participate in green agri-food systems. Patriarchal norms that are often inflexible place heavy, unpaid care work responsibilities and expectations on women and female youth. Some green jobs’ approaches thus risk straining women’s and female youths’ already burdensome time poverty. The labor-intensive, more time-consuming nature of some green agricultural practices could worsen the situation. Ensuring that the greening of agriculture and the creation of green jobs addresses job quality and downstream impacts for women and female youth is essential in charting inclusive ways forward.

Improve the Enabling Environment for Greener Jobs for Youth in Agriculture

Despite drawbacks, youth are demanding and creating greener jobs that focus on adequate wages, safe working conditions, job security, reasonable career prospects, and worker rights. They continue to see and seize opportunities to start their own businesses as entrepreneurs that can employ others and serve as agents of change. Addressing barriers to youth participation in agri-food systems is critical to allow young people to learn and practice green(er) agricultural work that will contribute to local economic development and climate resilience. Working with local governments to create a better enabling environment for youth through improved access to finances and specialty skills required to perform greener practices, for example, will contribute to the massive change required to meet the climate crisis, as laid out in the IPCC report. Youth-led greening of the agri-food sector should be the focus of governments, donors and other organizations hoping to build a prosperous, more resilient world not only for today’s youth but for generations to come.